Monday, November 11, 2013

Why You Are Not a D: Thoughts on Reading Levels

"This book is an F?  Wow!  I thought I was a D!"

If I never hear another comment like this again in my classroom, I will be a very happy teacher.  As a first grade teacher and former Reading Recovery teacher, I know the value of leveled books in my classroom.  I know that my beginning readers will be best supported by the gradually increasing sight word vocabulary, phonics demands, and text structures that leveled books offer.  I love to introduce them to characters like Bella and Rosie, or the Bear family, or Kitty Cat and Fat Cat, knowing that their knowledge of these characters will support them as their books get more difficult.  I think the quality of leveled books in fiction and nonfiction is better now than it ever has been, and I put as many of them into my kids' hands as I can.

I think where our use of leveled books has gone off the tracks is when we chose to focus on the level and not the book. I want my students to be, to borrow Donalyn Miller's phrase, wild readers.  I want them to be able to pick up a book because it looks interesting, then judge for themselves whether it is just right for them now or will be saved for later.  My classroom library is not leveled for this reason.  Wild readers need to be able to make that determination for themselves.  I am very aware that first graders (and all students) need a lot of support to make that happen, but I worry that in our intention to build a scaffold, we have built a cage instead.  Will my first graders who are excited to move from level D to level F grow up to be sixth graders who avoid books like See You at Harry's because it is "not the right level"?

I do not share or emphasize reading levels with my students.  I tell that that there are lots of books with different letters on the cover that will be just right for them for different reasons, and that I try to pick the book that I think will help them grow as readers.  I think there are other ways to show students how they are growing as readers besides presenting reading as a video game with levels to be completed.  I want them to BE readers, to connect with characters, to get lost in another place, to see the world from the eyes of someone different than themselves.

To the student who told me, "But I'm a D!", here is my reply:

No, you are not a D.  You are not a letter.  You are a reader.

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